Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud, London, 1982, p. 18, illustrated
Bruce Bernard & Derek Birdsall, Lucian Freud, London 1996, no. 25, illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Frankfurt, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Lucian Freud, Naked Portraits, Frankfurt 2001, p. 95, illustrated
The recent unveiling of Lucian Freud’s latest self-portrait at the National Gallery, London underlines the esteem in which this artist is now held. Widely acknowledged as the world’s most important living figurative painter, it is the rare self-portraits which have provided the backdrop to his unfolding artistic vision over the years. Typical of the man, these works do not just show his changing appearance nor his maturing painterly style, but they also provide dramatic insight into his own changing state of mind. No other visage has been scrutinised so intensely or with as much autobiographical insight as the artist’s own, and like Rembrandt before him, Freud’s impassioned self-portraits shirk vain repetition allowing him singular liberty to explore the boundaries of painterly expression.
This makes the appearance of Man with a Feather a truly exceptional auction moment, for this work represents Lucian Freud’s first recorded self-portrait painting. Painted when he was just 21 years old, the present work was exhibited at Freud’s inaugural one man show at the Lefevre Gallery in 1944 and is one of the artist’s iconic, early masterpieces whose singular psychological atmosphere combined with its smooth linearity led him to be dubbed by critic Herbert Read as the “Ingres of Existentialism”. Like Freud’s early portrait of his friend and fellow artist Francis Bacon which Robert Hughes described as having “the silent intensity of a grenade in the millisecond before it goes off”, Man With A Feather is empowered by a similar tension and dense core of trapped inner consciousness. This deeply introspective painting can be seen to establish the principal tenets that would inform Freud’s later work and is significant not only as the first of his iconic and groundbreaking series of self-portraits and the largest and most ambitious of the pictures he completed during the war, but also as the defining moment of his early artistic maturity. Man With A Feather has a candid and touching intimacy that anticipates the artist’s lifelong obsession with uncovering the inner humanity of his subjects.
From the early 1940s several distinguished cultural luminaries like Steven Spender had recognised Freud’s remarkable talent and enigmatic maturity. Peter Watson who was patron of the widely-read arts magazine Horizon in particular became a hugely influential mentor for Freud, publishing some of the young artist’s drawings and arranging for him to live rent free at Abercorn Place. It was a close friend of Watson’s, Robert Melville, who first acquired the work directly from the artist in the late 1940s when he was secretary of The London Gallery. Melville was an accountant turned influential art critic whose insightful and progressive eye inspired him to write the first monograph in English on Picasso as well as acquiring some truly outstanding early works with relatively little means.
Shortly before Man with a Feather was executed Freud had fallen in love with his first proper girlfriend, Lorna Wishart. The impact she had on his artistic confidence and sense of identity was significant, as is reflected by the number of early compositions inspired by her gifts like the stuffed zebra’s head in The Painter’s Room and the Dead Heron. A married woman several years his senior whom Freud had lured from the arms of the poet Laurie Lee, here he proudly displays another love token, the mysterious white feather that gives the painting its title. As it rests poised in the artist’s long and elegant fingers, Freud seems to be contemplating not only its exquisite form and significance but also his feelings for her.
The acute awareness Freud must have felt for his relative youth and inexperience is expressed through his intentionally intriguing self-presentation and the description of himself in the title as a Man. The engaging paleness of his face, his dapper attire and slightly skewed tie are all painstakingly studied and stylised. These deliberate symbols of maturity and artistic sophistication draw our gaze from one passage of paint to the next with their sensuous treatment, dynamically enhancing the figure’s own sense of quiet reflection. The ethereal, fleshy highlights on Freud’s face and hands reflect an early preoccupation with the subtle effects of light and detail that recalls the Northern Romantic tradition. The particular emphasis Freud gives to his own hands sees the continuation of one of the most important humanising themes in the history of art, following in the grand tradition of works like Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage (see Fig. 7).
It is significant also that Freud had recently learnt how Picasso had used Ripolin enamel paint in his work. The young artist’s extensive use of it here gives the surface its distinctive gloss: its thickness and smooth texture lending themselves effortlessly to the carefully studied buttons and lapels on his jacket. Using the finest sable brushes, Freud’s painstaking attention to texture and detail illustrates the insatiable hunger for material that has continued to drive his creative vision.
The linear sparseness of the artist’s hand in this pivotal work lends a totemic force to every object and detail, a quality that Freud has since developed to inform the material physicality of his more painterly late works. The exquisite Dürer-esque plants and animals of his early compositions - like the Freudian sofas and mountainous bundles of rags of his later work - are rarely just decorative motifs. Although any purely symbolist reading of the present work would compromise its intentional obscurity, Man With a Feather’s intriguing irreality is articulated through a multitude of ambiguous compositional devices that recall the vast and lonely Italian piazzas of De Chirico (see Fig. 9). Like the intrinsically revealing poses of his celebrated nudes, Freud’s manipulation of his portrait environments through Surrealist props serves to enrich the individual psychological identity of his sitters.
Through his friendship with Peter Watson and the cultural avant garde, Freud encountered the work of the Surrealists whose paintings had a profound influence on his early compositions. Their work was being promoted tirelessly and with missionary zeal in England during the late 1930s by the poet and painter Roland Penrose. Often drawing upon his large personal fortune, Penrose had organised the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1938 and in the following years financed a series of shows at The London Gallery by artists including Magritte, De Chirico and Delvaux. Delvaux summarised his artistic crusade as a surrealist painter in 1985 as, “I have spent my life trying to change reality into dreams – dreams in which the objects retain their actual appearance, and yet gain a poetic significance,” and a similar feeling surrounds the curious irrationality of forms in the present work in which the background is as much a visual expression of the artist’s state of mind as a real location.
The fusion of attributes and environment to reflect the inner psyche of his sitters is one of the defining characteristics in some of Freud’s most powerful and ambiguous mature works. Rather like the tap dribbling into the discoloured sink of Interior W11 (After Watteau) that Freud injects with the allegorical significance of an hourglass, the relationship of the background to the subject in the present work is consciously poetic and obscure. Defiantly giving the viewer no clues as to the shape, size or purpose of the yellow building in the background nor the luminous abstract beacons of colour that float suspended in the foreground like icebergs, we are forced to search the artist’s arresting visage for meaning. At the time of painting Man with a Feather, Freud had recently been in the merchant navy and although it is unlikely that he saw any icebergs, he was particularly interested in them as much for their metaphorical similarities with the hidden depths of the human psyche as for their physical shape. In Man with a Feather these oceanic forms add a feeling of geographic isolation to the figure of the artist, whilst simultaneously standing as metaphors for Freud’s own sense of drifting displacement as a non-combative German born Jew now living in London.
Until the last decade, Freud only painted himself very intermittently, and much has been written about his increased interest in his own depiction in recent years. As the first of a series of important self portraits which span Freud’s entire life, Man with a Feather provides the matrix for much of his future development. If the most recent self-portrait shows a wealth of experience etched on his face and a naked admirer clutching his leg whilst he tries to paint, the first, Man with a Feather, showed the beauty and innocence of youth contrasted with the confusion and anxiety surrounding his first experience of love. Although different in style, both are founded upon the hallmarks of Freud’s vision: a supreme draughtsmanship and an intimately scrutinised clarity of detail that embrace the solitary introspectiveness of his venerable and vulnerable gaze.
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